Thursday, August 9, 2012

States Respond to the U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Juvenile Life Sentences

On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling in Miller v. Alabama.  The Court held mandatory life sentences for juveniles without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional.  The Court reasoned that “[w]hile a mandatory life sentence for adults does not violate the Eighth Amendment, such a sentence would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for children.”  Furthermore, the Court added  the punishment should be proportioned to the offense and the offender.  Miller is a victory for juvenile justice advocates, but the fight continues.  Miller abolishes mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences, but it still permits a judge to sentence a juvenile to life without parole.  It is time for the United States to completely abolish juvenile life without parole sentences.  The court’s focus for juvenile offenders should be rehabilitation.

More than half of the states are affected by the Court’s decision in Miller.  There are currently twenty-nine states that have mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, and there are approximately 2500 juveniles serving life without parole in the United States.
 States have promptly begun to respond to the Court’s decisions.  North Carolina, the first state to respond to the Court’s decision, has amended its sentencing laws to comply with Miller.  Pennsylvania, the state with the highest number of juveniles serving life without parole, has initiated legislative hearings to determine how to best comply with Miller.  Michigan, the state with the second highest number of juveniles serving life without parole, has also initiated legislative hearings to determine how to best comply with Miller.  

While some states are making prompt attempts to comply with the Court’s decision, Iowa found a way to evade compliance.  Iowa’s Governor Terry Branstad commuted the life sentences for juveniles in his state to a number of years.  The governor changed the sentences from life without the possibility of parole to a sixty year minimum sentence before the juvenile is eligible for parole.  Iowa’s Constitution permits the governor to commute life sentences to a number of years; however, the question remains whether commuting juvenile life without parole sentences to a sixty year minimum sentence actually complies with Miller or whether the sentence in itself is unconstitutional for a juvenile after Miller.

Miller simply gives the judge discretion.  It allows the judge to consider mitigating factors for sentencing.  Mitigating factors are factors regarding the juvenile’s character or circumstances of the crime including but not limited to age, mental illness, and history of maltreatment.   After considering these factors, a judge can still sentence a juvenile to life without parole.  The actions of Iowa’s governor seem to suggest that he does not trust the state’s judges with this type of discretion.  In Miller, the Court pointed out that juveniles are immature, irresponsible, impetuous, reckless, and susceptible to influence and psychological damage.  Moreover, the Court pointed out that the crime should be proportioned to both the offender and the offense.  For the foregoing reasons, judges need discretion in juvenile sentencing.  If Governor Branstad trusts his state’s judges then he can trust that they will issue sentences that consider the offender’s mitigating circumstances as well as public safety and punishment for the crime.

Iowa’s new sentence for juveniles is arguably equivalent to a life sentence without the possibility of parole.  The average life expectancy in the United States is seventy-eight years old.  Lifelong imprisonment would likely shorten the life expectancy age even more.  For a juvenile who is sentenced at the age of eighteen, he would not be eligible for parole until he is seventy-eight.  Iowa is essentially sentencing juveniles to spend the rest of their life in prison give or take a couple of years.  Iowa’s governor’s actions are completely contrary to the Court’s decision and rationale in Miller.

According to Amnesty International, the United States is believed to be the only country in the world to sentence its juveniles to life in prison without parole.  Although the Court’s decision in Miller is a step in the right direction, we must completely ban juvenile life without parole.  Juveniles have the capacity to change.  These are children, many whom have not had proper care, guidance, and supervision.  It is important that the Court stated the punishment must be proportioned to both the offender and the offense.  We cannot just look at the crime; we must look at the offender as well.  When we really look at the offender, we will see a hurt child. Many juvenile offenders have a history of maltreatment.  Maltreatment is certainly not an excuse to commit vicious crimes, but there is a correlation between maltreatment and juvenile criminal offense.  Children are not born criminals.  When a child commits a vicious crime something has obviously gone wrong in their life.  We may not be able to protect every child from maltreatment or the violence plaguing so many low income neighborhoods, but when the child does come to the court’s attention, we can help that child.  Our goal for juvenile offenders should always be rehabilitation.

Tonya Davis
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

Image By: Envios

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